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Gangster Aesthetics

I walked around a corner and a little boy pointed at me and said: “Look mummy, a gangster.” I was dressed in all black with a black overcoat – I hadn’t realized until then that I was wearing gangster drag. I live in part of Melbourne that is central to Melbourne’s gangland war but I never thought that I was part of it. But, the cultural influences of Melbourne’s gangsters are all around me. It is rumoured locally that the house behind mine was part of the gangster Tony Mokbel’s assets. All I know for certain was that they had a large dog in the backyard. It was auctioned late last year and the interior was decorated in the worst possible neo-rococo taste.

Melbourne’s gangland is more than just crime and corruption of police and politicians, like former Shadow Federal Attorney-General Kelvin Thomson, my local MP, who gave a reference to Tony Mokbel in 2000. Thomson  wrote that Mokbel  had made “significant contribution to the community” and had “unblemished conduct”.

Melbourne’s gangland is also an aesthetic and cultural influence, creating some excellent crime TV series, most recently Underbelly, and crime movies. True crime authors Andrew Rule and John Silvester wrote the Leadbelly series of books based on their journalist experience of the gangland. Geoffrey Wright’s 2006 movie of Macbeth has a design influenced by Melbourne’s gangland that contributed to a great interpretation of the script. I haven’t read any of celebrity criminal Mark ‘Chopper’ Read’s books but I have seen his inimitable foray into visual arts along with the variety of signed axes for sale in a Collingwood shop. ‘Chopper’ Read uses the theatre and showmanship to build on his own publicity.

Battle-axe signed by Chopper Read

Battle-axe signed by Chopper Read

Melbourne’s stencil artists have commented on the gang wars with lots of gangster images. This is in part because street art is an illegal activity and also because street art reflects popular culture. The best example of gangster influence on street art is by HaHa of Mario Condello.

HaHa's portrait of Mario Condello

HaHa's portrait of Mario Condello

HaHa’s series of repeated stencil portraits Condello is appropriately placed behind bars in Hosier Lane.  HaHa is also well known for his stencil portrait of the Australian colonial bushranger Ned Kelly. There were images of Al Pacino from Scarface trackside along the Upfield line. These gangster images work well in b&w high contrast and so a perfect for single colour stencils.

Melbourne’s gangland war continues to play itself out in the theatre of court and the mainstream media. It is also reflected and commented on in the arts and in Melbourne’s overall culture. What other subtle cultural impact does Melbourne’s gangland have in the arts, fashion and culture?

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About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

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